Object of the Month: Pictorial Autobiography

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Posted 30th July 2018

Life's Work: A reading of James Henry Pullen's Pictorial Autobiography

The thick walls of the building are made of solid stone,
Her mute mouth can yield no token of the facts. Great trouble
Is inventive, and ingenuity arises in difficult circumstances.
[Ovid, Metamorphoses VI.573-5]

What is Philomela to do? She is the prisoner of a wicked king who has rendered her mute to prevent accusation of his crimes. Nevertheless, she finds a way to make her story heard – by weaving a tapestry.

So runs the tale in the Roman poet Ovid's collection of myths, the Metamorphoses. In 1878 James Henry Pullen was in a similar predicament to Philomela and devised a similar solution. Confined to an 'idiot asylum' due to an unidentified disability that rendered him incapable of forming a coherent sentence, Pullen decided to tell the story of his life as an asylum inmate and craftsman through pictures. The result is a remarkable document referred to as his Pictorial Autobiography.

An approximately A1-size sheet of paper is divided into forty-one panels, each containing a small image that represents an episode in the artist's life. The style is a close parallel to the comic strips that were becoming increasingly fashionable in journalism of the day.

Reading the narrative that descends in columns across the page, a trend is immediately noticeable. People fade away. In only twelve panels are people apart from Pullen represented. In the latter half, most do not even show Pullen himself, but only one of his many constructions. These include his occasionally fantastical model ships, displayed with equal prominence to a cart, a box for transportation, a table, and furniture made in the asylum's employment.

One episode has pride of place in a central panel seven times larger than the others. This refers to his production of a highly detailed model of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's paddle steamer, the Great Eastern. We do not see the ship itself, but rather the scaffolding frame used in its construction. Drawn around the central masterpiece is a border of ropes, echoing in miniature that which surrounds the entire pictorial narrative.

In this a catalogue of one man's craft in all its aspects, the message is clear: 'My works are my life'.

Bill Freeman

See Pullen's Pictorial Autobiography in James Henry Pullen: Inmate - Inventor - Genius, on display until 28 October.